County Executive Matthew Meyer, D-New Castle, introduced his fiscal year 2018 budget proposal Tuesday.
Meyer announced a more than $284 million operating budget, which includes $5.1 million dollars in spending cuts to address an estimated $13.8 million deficit.
The County Executive said he believes his proposal is fiscally responsible, yet continues funding for core public services, such as public safety, libraries and infrastructure.
“Our goal is not to be pennywise pound foolish, and to spend efficiently,” Meyer said. “A lot of [the cuts] is stuff county residents won’t even notice.”
Meyer said the county faces a deficit because expenditures are exceeding revenues, and salaries and benefits outpace revenue growth. Expenditures are growing annually by 4.8 percent, while projected revenue growth is 1.5 percent.
In the meantime, the county has been paying back debt on interest only payments, which Meyer calls an “irresponsible practice.”
In addition, he said the tax stabilization reserve also is depleting. Previous administrations have tapped into the county’s cash savings accrued over time, which are held in its tax stabilization reserve fund, drawing it down by more than $25 million during Tom Gordon’s most recent tenure as County Exec. over the past four years.
Meyer has already enacted several cost saving measures, including a hiring review of all vacant positions, suspending employees’ ability to cash out unused vacation time, their discretionary overtime, with the exception those in public safety, and their out-of-state travel, as well as reducing executive office spending, including outside contracts.
“We must live within our means,” he said during his speech. “We cannot simply give salary increases, purchase vehicles and watch our healthcare costs increase without knowing how we are going to pay for it.”
The fiscal year 2018 budget proposal doesn’t raise taxes, but includes cutting $2.11 million in personnel costs. Meyers plan would move $0.98 million from the general fund cash to capital. It also calls for $0.71 million in base budget reductions to address the deficit.
Meyer said employees gave him feedback on where efficiencies can be found, which he said he took into consideration when drafting his budget.
In April, the County Executive also is recruiting an outside firm that will work pro bono to review performance and efficiency in county government, and recommend ways to further eliminate inefficiencies.
“For years, we have been spending more than we have been taking in as revenue. I cannot do that in my house. None of your constituents can do that, spend more than you make. So, we cannot do that as government,” Meyer told members of County Council during his speech.
“We as councilwomen, councilmen and I must vow right here, right now, not to hand our successors a situation like this. Let’s be responsible. Let’s fix this and get it right. This takes making some hard decisions.”
Councilman Penrose Hollins said there was nothing surprising about the details of Meyer’s budget proposal.
“I think it’s a different focus with this administration. I certainly don’t have any negative things to say about the previous administration. I think the county has done very well for a very long time. I think the idea we’re doing deficit spending is not something new,” he said.
“We do have reserves still today. I think there will be changes and those changes are to be expected. But overall, we have a very sound fiscal county, we still have a Triple A bond rating from all the bond rating agencies, one of the few counties in the country.”
County Council President Karen Hartley-Nagle said Meyer didn’t propose enough cuts in his budget, saying there’s about 150 vacant positions that haven’t been filled.
“I’m relieved Matt Meyer did not raise taxes, he and I had a discussion on that and I would have been strongly opposed if he tried to raise taxes,” she said. “But there are a lot more cuts I believe we can make, a lot more efficiencies we can have. I’d like to take a look at and go line by line.”
Meyer’s budget proposal also includes about $195 million in spending, with a large chunk directed toward public safety.
The County Executive proposes directing $160,000 to support the county’s Rave Panic Button, which is a safety solution that integrates government facilities, schools, community centers and other organizations into the 911 center, police and school response procedures.
Meyer also proposes $134,000 to fund annual maintenance support for a Fast Track DNA machine, which tests crime scene DNA, and $120,000 to pay for New Castle County Police’s local DNA database to improve its response to increased property crimes.
The budget proposal also includes $4.2 million in continued funding to support the fire service through grants that can fund a portion of their operating costs.
Other spending priorities include $621,675 in funding for expenses for the new Route 9 Library and Innovation Center, which is currently under construction.
“The majority of our spending is on our people, as It should be,” Meyer said.
His budget also includes $15.3 million for the capital budget, which is reduced by more than half from this fiscal year, and $35.4 million for the sewer fund, which is a 30 percent reduction from this fiscal year.
Councilwoman Lisa Diller said overall, she felt the presentation was very insightful.
“I think we’re all a little concerned that some of the information wasn’t given to us before this,” she said. “Mr. Meyer has only been in office since January, so no harm, no foul for him, but I felt for the first time in couple years we were getting the full story on the budget and I’m very pleased about that.”
Going forward Diller said she wants to ensure the county provides community services at a reasonable cost.
“I’ll be looking to make sure we retain a commitment to six days open with the libraries, we’re all concerned with the summer youth program, we want to make sure the students that need jobs have jobs, we want to support youth sports and continue adult sports and supportive seniors.”
Meyer said he also took comments from a discussion he hosted on social media into consideration when drafting his budget. He will host his second Facebook Live Town Hall on the County’s Facebook page on Thursday, at 7:00 p.m. to discuss the budget and receive feedback from the public.